The morning was both warm and chilly as clouds moved randomly across the sun. My three grown children, Jesse, Jake, and Karen, along with Jake’s daughter Annie, had gathered with me for breakfast at an outdoor cafe. Just one week into December, and Christmas had already splashed across this Northern California town. Colorful lights and shimmering garland brightened the small local shops, and hand-painted “Happy Holiday” signs decorated their windows. The festive frill mocked my wistful spirit. A few weeks earlier, we had learned that my 85-year-old mother, their grandmother, had cancer.
Annie lightened our mood. She wore a soft pink Santa hat, complete with a silver princess crown sewn into the front of the white bottom band that wrapped around her forehead. Jake told us that Annie had been practicing all week for her upcoming Christmas program.
“I'm gonna do a dance," Annie informed me; "We're gonna sing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’.”
“Can you show me?”
Annie hopped off her chair in a twirl. She danced on the open patio; her thick blonde hair flew around her face. Her eyes scrunched tight as she concentrated on each move. She stepped side to side, walked forward and back, arms rising and falling as she sang. When the dance ended, I hugged Annie tight, smoothed back her hair with my fingers, hoped she could feel how much she mattered.
After Annie's dance, we talked while we waited for breakfast. "Your grandmother’s going to have a hysterectomy," I said. Even though I feared losing my mother, I was the parental buffer. I tried to sound positive, courageous. I shared that this was good news, as it meant that the doctors believed she was strong enough to undergo the surgery, adding only that we wouldn’t know the extent of her cancer until after the procedure.
Jake sat across from me, head lowered, button-lipped. My oldest son, Jess, sat by my side. He wore his usual black beanie, dark sweatshirt. His hand gripped the table’s edge. He looked at me. “She’ll be OK?”
Worry tensed through my shoulders, neck I didn’t want my mother to die. I wanted to believe her optimism. A few days earlier, when I had asked her over the phone about her upcoming hysterectomy, she had said, "My doctor asked me if I felt nervous or fearful about the procedure. I told him, I'm 85. I've lived my life and I know where I'm going after. What's there to be afraid of?"
Before I could answer Jess’s question, the waitress brought our food and set down the plates, as we each grappled with this new word that described my active, upbeat mother. Cancer.
Annie neatly cut her blueberry pancakes into squares, then Jake drizzled maple syrup over them. Jess stirred cream into his coffee. The trees that circled the patio were partial skeletons, but the few leaves that held on rustled softly. Their burnt-orange color flickered against blue sky. The
smell of strong coffee with a hint of cinnamon and pancakes, filled the moment. It was my daughter, Karen, who broke the silence; "I was thinking of learning to knit or crochet. Which one is the easiest to learn?"
I told Karen, that for me, it was knitting, but most people would probably say crochet; "My friend, Andi, knits and crochets. She uses a round knitting loom to make beanies. It looks like an easy way to make hats.” I searched for a way to describe Andi, my friend who, at thirty-one, is younger than my children.
"In her early twenties, Andi lost her mother to an aneurysm."
Karen’s blue eyes flashed. "Well, she can't have our mother.”
Even with the playful tone, I understood Karen's sentiment. She had lost me once already. When I divorced her father, he had refused to move out of the family home. Karen was just fourteen when I left. She and I were reunited two years later, but the pain of the separation lingered.
Annie finished her pancakes, Karen drank her last sip of chai tea. My sons and I placed extra food in take-home containers. It was time to part. We hugged each other tightly, planned another outing to make ugly-sweater sugar cookies.
As my children drove off in different directions, I reflected on similar moments I’d shared with my mother: baking cookies, eating lunch at the wharf overlooking the bay near her home, hanging tinsel on the Christmas tree. After the holidays, Karen and I would fly south to visit my mother. We would sort through old photos, pack up boxes of items no longer needed.
The clouds gave way to full sun and an expansive view of sky. I looked up at the trees, noticed dying leaves dangle from their branches. I could see the thread, that fragile cord that attached families. I held it tightly as I gathered my purse and sweater, then headed towards my truck for the long ride home.
Kandi Maxwell lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. She is a retired secondary English teacher. Her stories have been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, Foilate Oak, The Door is Ajar, The Offbeat, The Meadows and many other literary journals and print anthologies.